Tents are wonderfully effective, but also large, heavy and fragile. Can you really go camping without one? Turns out, you really don't have to sacrifice that much.

Roughing It: This is my preferred outdoor sleeping solution, but only when I can say with reasonable certainty that it's not going to rain. Here in Southern California, that's typically a given, but sleeping on the ground is far from ideal elsewhere.


  • Doesn't get any simpler than this.
  • Nothing to carry, nothing to setup, nothing to take down.
  • Great view of the stars and connection to nature.


  • Any moisture spoils it. Even a heavy dew can make things uncomfortable and a light rain will get you soaked. Double your problems if you've got a down bag.
  • Still need to carry an air mattress and sleeping bag or, in summer, at least a warm blanket.
  • Bugs.
  • Doesn't feel as "safe" from nighttime critters as the paper-thin mesh of a tent wall.
  • Not terribly private if there's other people around or passing through.

Photo: Anoxolotl

Hammocks: There's a certain romantic appeal to hanging a hammock out in the wilderness. But, think of the things a hammock requires — perfectly spaced trees, low wind, some knowledge of knot tying. All that can make them a real headache.


  • Get's you off the rocky, wet, cold ground.
  • Even enclosed designs with roofs pack smaller than most tents — no poles!
  • Can be very comfortable.
  • No creepy crawlies sharing your bed.


  • Much trial and error involved in achieving the right "slack" for your individual comfort, frequently requiring re-adjustment several times in one night.
  • Still requires a sleeping pad and sleeping bag in cold weather.
  • May leave you more exposed to elements in cold or inclement weather.
  • May damage trees, meaning they're not allowed in most parks and other protected areas.
  • Can't use a hammock above the tree line.

The Nemo GoGo Elite is generously sized for a bivvy shelter, but weighs just 1lbs, 4oz. Cheaper bivvy bags are literally just a bag.


Bivvies: Let's include both bivvy bags and bivvy shelters in this. The former is literally just a weatherproof bag you put your sleeping bag in, the latter includes a bit of a rudimentary, tent-like structure to increase comfort.


  • Light and compact, a bivvy excels at being carried.
  • Setup and takedown are virtually as easy as roughing it.
  • Surprisingly effective in bad weather, working well to keep you warm and dry, at least once you're inside, with everything zipped up.
  • An excellent emergency option for stowing in a pack if you're not planning to sleep outside, but may be forced to do so in bad weather.


  • No room to change or move around. If it's wet, you'll be shedding layers and taking off your shoes in the rain.
  • Requires you to carry a contractor bag or similar to keep your pack and clothing dry overnight.
  • Can be very claustrophobic.
  • Applicable to sleeping only. There's no hanging out in a bivvy or bivvy shelter any time when you're not horizontal, with eyes closed.

Photo: Chris Brinlee Jr.

Tarps: The hottest trend in Ultralight Backpacking right now, the humble tarp is receiving a modern makeover with Space Age materials, fancy designs and correspondingly high price tags — often more than many tents.


  • As light and compact as a bivvy, with room to move around inside.
  • Myriad setup options, including making them freestanding using branches or hiking poles.
  • Ignoring the high price versions, you can totally make your own from a bed sheet and silicon or just cut a piece of heavy-duty plastic sheeting to size. Either way, super cheap versions can perform as well as the fancier ones.


  • Not quite as weatherproof as a tent.
  • Setup takes some creativity and practice.
  • Not as good at retaining heat as a tent.
  • Most setup options have you sleeping on bare ground, which maybe wet or cold and can damage your air mattress or sleeping bag.
  • The high dollar ones are positively silly.

Photo: Sudarkoff

Build Your Own: Planning medium-term habitation in the outdoors or just unexpectedly caught outside when the weather turns bad? Making your own shelter can be both easy and effective. We'll look at this in more depth in the near future, but easy ones to make (if you have time an tools) are Lean-Tos and debris piles. The former can take the relatively simple form of branches leant against a rock or log or be a more elaborately built, sturdier, standalone structure. The latter is easy to make, even in a rush — you basically just make a huge pile of leaves and leaf litter, then crawl into the middle of it to stay warm and dry.


  • Potentially capable of keeping you both dry and warm, even if you have no tools and inappropriate clothing for the conditions.
  • Easy and quick to build from easily found materials.
  • Provides excellent visual concealment.


  • Bugs. Anytime you sleep on the ground, you're exposing yourself to them, but man, are you really asking for fun bug times if you sleep in a giant leaf pile. And we don't just mean ants; ever heard of chiggers? Having said that, bugs aren't an issue if it's below freezing.
  • Takes some common sense and practice to make an effective shelter. Even the debris pile has a knack to it.
  • You're not supposed to do this in most parks and protected areas unless it's absolutely necessary.

Have you ever or do you regularly sleep outside in a non-tent situation? Tell us about your experience in comments.

Top Photo: Chris Brinlee Jr.

IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.